Miles from Palestine

Robert Fisk

Around eight years before the Palestinians began their current uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a prematurely old Palestinian guerrilla – unshaven, his combat jacket frayed at the sleeves – sat in a breeze-block office in the slums of a North Lebanese refugee camp and told me why he knew he would return to the land which he still called Palestine. The rain had been guttering down into the filth and mud of the streets of Nahr el-Bared all day and I recall that as this ageing functionary of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine went on and on, a thin tide began to edge its way under the wooden door of the hut.

How could he ever convince himself that he would return, I kept asking? Did he not realise that the winding country roads about which he spoke from the recesses of his memory were now six-lane highways, that the village of Deir Yassin – where Menachem Begin’s Irgun massacred the Palestinian inhabitants in 1948 – was now a mere suburb of Jerusalem, a place of apartment blocks and car repair shops? Was he unaware that the olive groves of which he spoke so emotionally had in some cases disappeared, that the bare hilltops were now sporting Jewish settlements? What could he do to arrest these things, sitting here in this drafty hut so many miles from ‘Palestine’?

The bare light-bulb swung back and forth in the gale. And the unshaven warrior actually stood up in a vain attempt to push back the tide of water creeping beneath the door with his old army boot. ‘The Crusades,’ he replied. ‘The Crusades. Have you not read about them? Did not Sala’adin push out the foreigner who took his land and his holy places? Did this not take time?’ It was a surreal moment. Here was this ghostly fighter in this little slum – even his rifle, hanging on a peg on the wall, was dirty – calling up the epic history of the land to plug the breach in his own broken defences. Could anything have been more removed from the decisiveness of history than this far corner of Lebanon from which he would, within three years, be driven even further away?

Eight years later, in the Deheisha refugee camp on the occupied West Bank, David Grossman experienced a faintly similar phenomenon. He was listening to an old Palestinian woman remembering her past, in the village of Ain Azrab, baking bread over a straw fire, the woman all the time unconsciously working her fingers through the motion of kneading. Grossman clearly understood what he was seeing and hearing:

Everything happens elsewhere. Not now. In another place. In a splendid past or a longed-for future. The thing most present here is absence. Somehow one senses that people here have turned themselves voluntarily into doubles of the real people who once were, in another place. Into people who hold in their hands only one real asset: the ability to wait. And I, as a Jew, can understand that well.

The waiting, of course, now appears to be over, at least while the current uprising lasts. But over the years, there have been few enough Israelis who have understood what this means – which is why David Grossman’s book is so important. ‘The Palestinians, as is well-known, are making use of the ancient Jewish strategy of exile and have removed themselves from history,’ he writes. ‘They close their eyes against harsh reality, and stubbornly clamping down their eyelids, they fabricate their Promised Land.’

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